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I Got 99 Problems, CB4 Ain't 1

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It's only seven games into the 2006-07 season and already Raptor fans are crying foul.

And can you blame them? A quick look at the National Post today (page A-10) confirms this as discussions on both our site and others are profiled, showing just what type of dischord the new season has brought to Raptor fans so far.

After wholesale changes in the off-season, new, more defensive-minded personnel, the number one draft pick, a trade netting the team's first pass-first point guard and a successful pre-season, Raptor fans had high expectations coming into this year. In fact, on our old site, our "how many games do you think the Raptors will win" poll had about 73 per cent of respondents saying at least 36 games. I wonder if we'd get the same results if we threw the same poll up now?

So what exactly is going on? Yes it's still very early in the season and Sam Mitchell is still trying to figure things out with a lineup composed of nine new players, but as Chris Young alluded to yesterday in his blog, there are some obvious concerns already.

Toronto has tough matchups coming up against the Lakers, Nuggets, Jazz and Cavs in that order, and presently look hard-pressed to win any one of these contests. While the Raptors had some time off yesterday to recompose themselves, Kobe hung 81 on Toronto last year and based on this team's defence so far this season, it's no stretch to say that he could easily do it again. In addition, Los Angeles runs a very structured offensive set (the famous triangle offense) and considering the trouble Toronto has had this season against set plays (see fourth quarter of Tuesday's loss) this doesn't bode well either. Finally, Kwame Brown, Luke Walton, Ronny Turiaf, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum are all bigger bodies at their positions than most of the Raptors and Sam Mitchell is going to have to make good use of Rasho Nesterovic. For Toronto to get this win they're going to need to control the boards, dictate the tempo of the game, and of course do a number defensively on Bryant.

But beyond these keys to Friday's game, is Toronto actually a better team than last year's rendition? It seems so far that the pre-game articles we're posting are filled with the same issues that plagued last year's squad.

So without wasting anymore time, let's jump on it and take a look at the problems facing a team that seemed to be headed in the right direction and in the words of the Jigga-man, "was all good just a few short weeks ago..."

1) The starting lineup: This has been one of the issues most debated by fans since the season began, especially concerning the point guard position. TJ Ford has been outplayed by Jose Calderon and has certainly not come close to meeting most fans' expectations when Bryan Colangelo dealt for him. In fact many people have pointed out that Calderon is one of only three Raptors with a positive rating based on 82games.com's statistical look at the Raptors. And for those of you who have seen the games, you don't need stats to tell you who's playing better. Calderon has been superior defensively, has hit open shots, has set the pace on offense and more importantly, looks to be a much more confidant player than he was last year. Some have argued that Calderon is what he is, a great backup point guard...however that begs the question. If he's playing better than TJ, do we now simply have two good backup point guards?

When we traded for Ford I expected him to use his speed to get to the rim and find open players. I also expected him to help out in the rebounding department due to his athletic ability and more importantly, to really be a leader on the court. In fact, I saw him as a player in the mold of Chris Paul, not exactly a huge scoring threat due to shaky outside shooting, but someone who could break down an opposing team's defence, rebound the ball and essentially be a triple-double threat each night for Toronto. Now in no way am I saying I thought TJ would be as good as Paul, but just that he was more that style of point guard as opposed to a great shooter/assist man and poor rebounder/defender like Steve Nash. Instead, I'm curently left wondering what the difference is between Ford and Speedy Claxton. However TJ is not the source of all of Toronto's problems...

2) Shooting: I'm not sure how much simpler this gets. As coach Sam Mitchell loves to allude to, the team is simply not hitting its open shots. Look at some of these individual percentages:

Morris Peterson - 39 per cent
Andrea Bargnani - 41 per cent
Joey Graham - 35 per cent
Rasho Nesterovic - 31 per cent
Jorge Garbajosa - 28 per cent

Ugh. And for the season Toronto as a collective is shooting only 43 per cent. For a team that wants to run and gun, that's just not going to cut it.

And really this is a huge issue. What if this is as good as the shooting gets? I guess what I'm saying is that there's a fundamental flaw in the offensive philosophy of this team if it can't shoot over 45 per cent collectively and have some of these players in particular, raise their averages. Mike James is not here anymore. Neither is CV Smooth. Both of these players were good shooters and could create their own shots in the half-court and while Toronto didn't get out and run as much, the offense in the half-court was much more successfull. Teams had a tough time guarding the pick and roll with Bosh and James, or even James and Villanueva. Now however, without the screen and roll threat thanks to the clanky shooting of TJ Ford, the team is forced to play a penetrate and dish style which is fine if...

...you guessed it...

...the players getting "dished-to" are hitting their shots.

I really see this as a major dilemma for the Raptors. The team simply doesn't have the size or athletic ability to be a good half-court team currently and without some outside gunners, Toronto is simply not going to be able to stay in games because like last season, Toronto is playing no...

3) Defence: Surprise, surprise! Toronto is allowing their opponents to score 104 points per game (third worst in the league) and while the NBA's new rules definitely aren't helping matters, there's no way that this team with its current personnel should be allowing more points to their opponents than teams such as Portland, Golden State and Boston! And of course this translates to other areas as well such as opponent field goal percentage, where Toronto is allowing other teams to shoot almost 48 per cent against them. How to shore up this defence? Well more dedication to the task is the easy answer and perhaps it is something that will improve as the season wears on and players become more accustomed to playing with each other. Watching the team so far you can see that players still aren't sure of where to go at times in terms of defending various situations like the pick and roll or rotating to help on back-door cuts. These issues however all echo fundamentals which brings us to our next issue...

4) Sam Mitchell: ESPN.com's lead article this afternoon is a look at which NBA coaches are on the hot seat and the odds as to which ones will be canned first. Toronto's own Sam Mitchell is not quite in the fire...but he's close enough to the burner to feel the heat. ESPN.com has him listed at 9-1 in terms of odds of being the first coach fired behind the likes of Mike Fratello, Doc Rivers, Dwayne Casey, and Bob Hill. Mitchell has always been seen as a good motivator but a coach who doesn't excel at the intracacies of the game in terms of X's and O's. In addition, it's been suggested that with so many new players on the team and a small staff of assistants, perhaps Sam needs some help?
While many Raptor fans are calling for Mitchell's head, I'm not totally convinced at this point that Mitchell needs to go and I think he'll be safe until Christmas. However there are things besides defence that need to be addressed in terms of Mitchell's performance, namely...

5) Rotations: Yes, we've been over the whole "need to establish a set rotation" a million times but let me get this straight. The thinking was that Bosh needed some help up front and Toronto needed a legitimate center so they traded for Rasho Nesterovic. However, now that they have him, he's lucky to get 15 minutes a game! I don't get this at all. If he's too slow and the staff believes that he's a liability to the club at one end of the court or the other, why did the Raptors trade for him in the first place? Better yet, why are they playing him at all? I'd rather speed up the development of Andrea Bargnani and play him major minutes even if it means conceding some wins. It's not like Rasho's having that big of an impact...otherwise he'd be playing more than 15 minutes a game! Why can't Toronto give his minutes to someone else!

Right now I feel like I'm watching the Hoffa fiasco all over again to some extent. Sure, Bargnani looks better offensively already than Hoffa ever will be but his defence and other skill sets are seriously lagging behind. He's simply not strong enough to box out many of league's big men (see Andris Biedrins treating him like a pinata Tuesday night) and he's not ready to contribute much at the NBA level right now. Yet for some reason like clockwork, Mitchell inserts him into the lineup with a few minutes left in the first quarter in almost every game. Like the Araujo situation, the substitution doesn't seem to have any real rationale in terms of game-play other than to give the kid some minutes. I understand he needs to play to get better...but then either give him some major minutes or send him to the D League so he gets time. I just don't understand this!! I feel the same way about Joey Graham. Joey has potential but I still think he's adjusting to playing the 2-3 rather than 3-4 like he did in college. The answer isn't to have him come in for four or five minutes in a pressured situation and expect him to perform at a high level...he should have spent time in the D League last year to get his confidence and guard skills up to par. Right now his brother (a member of the Portland Trailblazers) who went undrafted, is playing better than he is and I think it's a combination of Joey being asked to do too much, and now not getting the time he needs, playing behind Parker, Jones and Peterson. Maybe Joey will never cut it in the NBA...but right now I'm not sure how Colangelo and co. will ever know for sure.

The bottom line here for me is that I didn't expect Bargnani to take the league by storm in his rookie season. Raptor fans were spoiled by Villanueva last year who was far ahead of the rookie curve as an NBA player and they're just going to have to be patient with Il Mago. The question then for management is...are we trying to make the playoffs now, or are we really trying to use this three-year window that we have most of our "key" players signed for, to improve and build towards something bigger.

6) Lack of Talent: So maybe there aren't 99 problems...maybe I'm just anxious for Jay-Z's new relase and the title is more of an ode to that. However, forget about the Sam Mitchell situation for a second. Forget about the turnovers, the lack of defense, the poor shooting etc, etc. Take this team at face value. Besides the team's heart and soul, Chris Bosh, is there another All-Star on the roster? A potential one? Perhaps Bargnani down the road. Hell, maybe even TJ straightens his shot out and fulfills the promise that made him such a high draft pick. But is there anyone else? Peterson, Parker, Jones, Calderon...all great role players...but not an All-Star among them. My point is, prior to the season and even in pre-season, we weren't really sure what many of the new faces were going to give this team. So far, I'd have to say that Garbajosa, Jones and Nesterovic have been disappointments in one way or another and a new reality is setting in for me - This team may be in a better salary cap situation and be more cohesive in many ways than last year's club, but it isn't as talented right now and has a ways to go.

Yes, I realize that's a big statement but look around the league. Is there another club you can pick out which has less talent than us? The Celtics have Paul Pierce and a former All-Star in Wally's World in addition to some exceptional young prospects like Rajon Rondo and Gerald Green (I'm no longer including Al Jefferson in this list.) The Bobcats have an envigorated Emeka Okafor along with Gerald Wallace and prospects Raymond Felton, Sean May and Adam Morrison. (Right now I think I'd even take Brevin Knight over TJ Ford.) Perhaps Memphis or Portland would be in the same talent field as Toronto but even the Blazers have Zach Randolph on the comeback trail and the Grizzlies are missing their franchise player. No, Toronto is really going to have to work for 48 minutes to win each and every game this season.

Am I saying this team is going to win 15 games? No. But I do think that given what I've seen through the first seven contests, the team has a long way to go before fans start thinking playoffs and is going to have to deal with some major issues before it can start "brushing the dirt off its shoulder."

FRANCHISE